Taliban face reality: ‘I have 30 million people to look after and no money.’

Kabul’s new Taliban mayor has no time to waste as he deals with the hundreds of petitioners who besiege the city’s municipal headquarters each day.

Sitting behind a Taliban desk flag, Hamdullah Nomani spends a few minutes considering complaints from each of the civilians arrayed around a vast conference table. Many of them see the Taliban’s return to power as an opportunity for redress against the rich and powerful of the old order.

A shopkeeper is told she can restore her makeshift kiosk to the place it once stood before her spot was seized “by powerful men”. Another is told her tenants will have to pay rent after refusing to do so for years. A decree is signed banning bottling companies from siphoning off Kabul’s groundwater and selling it to outlying provinces.

Nomani, who served as mayor in the Afghan capital under the Taliban’s first government in the 1990s, said its people expected far more of the local government than when the movement first took power, after the city had been shattered by the 1992-96 civil war. Kabul is now a very different place: the city has enjoyed rapid growth and development in the years after the 2001 US-led invasion that ousted the Islamists, with money poured into construction, infrastructure and new businesses.

New Kabul mayor Hamdullah Nomani, right, meets his predecessor, Daoud Sultonzoy. The former mayor said his plans, including Kabul’s first sewerage system, had been put aside © Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images
Kabul citizens petition the new mayor, right. Many see the Taliban’s return to power as an opportunity for redress against the rich and powerful of the old order © Jon Boone/FT

“In the old era the main job of the municipality was to try to clean up war damage and mine clearing,” he said. “Now we have to manage a city with tall towers and population of 6.5m. We have to call on experts and engineers.”

But delivering the services to which Afghans have become accustomed is a tall order at a time of economic collapse, withdrawal of western financial support and an exodus of expert administrators since the Taliban takeover in August.

One service that is both available and popular under the Islamists is speedy justice. Even the Taliban’s most implacable critics concede that crime has been driven down by their practice of on-the-spot punishment and ritual humiliation for offenders.

In recent days, thieves have had their faces painted black, a man who stole from a plumbing supplier was strung with a necklace of taps and had his picture splashed across Taliban social media accounts, and a mobile phone snatcher was tied to a signpost outside the Kabul mayor’s office and thrashed.

Column chart of Net official development assistance and aid received ($bn) showing International aid has been a vital source of revenue

However, Daoud Sultonzoy, the city’s ousted mayor, who despite having no formal role still goes to his old offices each day to try to influence the new overseers, said his former agenda, which included plans for Kabul’s first sewerage system, had been put aside.

“They are focusing on law and order because last time they came they inherited a very devastating situation where women and boys were being raped and there was a thug on every corner,” he said. “This time the situation is very different but their old doctrine is still at work.”

Lack of cash is also hindering service provision. Last year Afghanistan’s state budget was $5.5bn, with about 80 per cent funded by US and other international donors. That funding ended when the Taliban took over. The US also froze $9.5bn of Afghanistan’s assets.

Taliban fighters patrol a Kabul market
A Taliban fighter patrols a Kabul market. With the police and army dissolved, security across the country is in the hands of unpaid militia © Bernat Armangue/AP
A woman gives bread to young people in need in front of bakery in Kabul
A woman hands out bread to children outside a Kabul bakery. Many Taliban fighters rely on the local community or family for food and other supplies © Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Omar Zakhilwal, a former finance minister, said the Taliban could save money with a scaled-down army that cost a fraction of what was spent on the US-built security forces. A crackdown on corruption at customs posts could boost one of the state’s main revenue earners, he said. But a yawning funding gap would not be covered — as many Taliban appeared to hope — by Chinese largesse, he warned.

“The Taliban are open to conversations,” said Zakhilwal, one of the few politicians from the old order still living in Kabul. “I am able to interact with them, to reason with and try to explain the complexity of government. But have I made any progress? No.”

The problems are piling up. The World Health Organization says Afghanistan’s health system is on “the brink of collapse” as supplies run out and staff salaries go unpaid. Civil servants have not been paid for two months and grow ever more anxious about feeding their families.

Hashmat Stanekzai, a worker at the ministry of information and culture, said he was going to his office for only a few hours each day before searching for other work or trying to find ways to leave the country. “We have been told to go but there are no managers to direct us and nothing to do,” he said.

Chart showing that Afghanistan ranks near the bottom on most socio-economic measures, Legatum prosperity score, 2020

Many public servants do not want to work under the new regime. Those able to leave the country in the chaotic days after the fall of Kabul have done so. Others continue to trickle out despite the virtual closure of land borders to most travellers — paying people smugglers or securing seats on the few flights operating to Pakistan.

Ahmad Mujtaba Niazi, a former adviser to the education minister, paid $1,500 for a seat on a 50-minute flight to Islamabad that was filled with civil servants and people who had worked with foreign NGOs.

“The Talib who is now doing my job keeps calling me to say I will be safe and I should come and tell him what needs to be done,” he said. “But they are not honest. We are not safe. They are not interested in hearing what people like us have to say.”

A Taliban fighter with a whip acts as a security guard outside a bank as men wait to withdraw money
A Taliban fighter patrols outside a bank as men wait to withdraw money. Many in the regime’s forces rely on the businesses they guard to supply them with food © Oliver Weiken/dpa
Afghan women shop for dresses at a street market.
A family shops for clothes at a street market. Delivering the services to which Afghans have become accustomed is a tall order at a time of economic collapse © Felipe Dana/AP

He has not been reassured by the government’s early decisions. They include the appointment of a cabinet dominated by Pashtun Talibs with scant administrative experience and the replacement of the distinguished academic who ran Kabul University with a mullah.

With the police and army dissolved, security across the country is in the hands of a variety of unpaid Taliban groups. Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the defence minister, has publicly rebuked some of his fighters for poor discipline and engaging in revenge killings.

There is talk among the Taliban of bringing order to its ragtag militias with a professionalised force that would merge former insurgents and soldiers, but nothing official has been announced.

For the time being the Taliban’s estimated 70,000-100,000 fighters are concentrated in important centres, including Kabul and the Panjshir Valley, where an organised resistance had to be put down. It is not enough to man the country’s more than 400 districts.

“Initially the Taliban came and occupied our district but then they all went to Panjshir to fight,” said a rights activist from the northern province of Badakhshan. “They just left a couple of 14 or 15-year-old boys to take care of things.”

Individual bands of Taliban organise their own supplies. Many rely on support from their families or food from the banks and businesses they have taken it on themselves to guard.

“They are playing to the Afghan tradition of hospitality of always offering food to your guest,” said a senior business figure. “When you have a couple of guests, that’s OK. When you are feeding 40-50 people three times a day then you have a problem.”

A Taliban fighter carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher stands on pirate ship ride in a fairground at Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul
A Taliban fighter guards a fairground ride at Qargha reservoir. Some in the movement say they do not mind being unpaid as their cause is more important than money © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
Taliban fighters ride the pedalboats at Qargah.
Taliban fighters ride tourist pedal boats at Qargha. Analysts say the regime may collapse if it fails to win back international funding © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Alokozay, the country’s biggest consumer goods company, is providing 10,000 free meals a day to Taliban forces in Kabul and more in the provinces, according to the business community.

“We do not mind not being paid because we have not been paid for 20 years,” said Ahmadullah Ahmadi, a 30-year-old commander from the Taliban’s elite Badri 313 force whose men now guard the Ferris wheels and lakeside attractions at Qargha, a reservoir on Kabul’s western outskirts. “We are not working for money, we are working for the sake of Allah and Islamic rule. We don’t need skyscrapers and planes and all of these things.”

Whether unpaid guard duty will sustain the enthusiasm of men attracted to the movement by the promise of holy war against infidel invaders remains to be seen.

One former senior government official predicts an “implosion” of the Taliban regime if it is unable to secure international recognition and the return of significant foreign funding.

Such a collapse, he hoped, might empower more pragmatic members of the Taliban leadership.

Michael Semple, a veteran Afghanistan expert, said there was a “fair chance the whole rickety regime won’t last six months”.

“They have 30m people to look after and no money to do it with,” he said. “They will get some humanitarian assistance but it will be negligible. Falling back on repression and violence will provoke resistance.”

Video: How the 20-year war changed Afghanistan | FT Film
hello, I am Flora Khan and i work journalist in allnewshouse website i work in other sites like forbes and washington post with 5 years in experience.

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